*THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW OF LUKE CAGE SEASON 2*
“Hero is your word. Not mine.”
Everyone has a past, not just their own but one passed down from ancestors and with it comes an influence that can consume a person. That is the central theme of Luke Cage’s sophomore season, and what makes it such an engaging web series. Despite a lot of promise, the debut of Netflix’s third Marvel web series faltered as it lacked a sense of direction, but this season has a statement to make and executes it perfectly.
The story of Luke Cage is continued from last season as he is now Harlem’s defender and seeks to keep the neighborhood and its people safe from harm. This goal is complicated by the continued criminal activities of Mariah Stokes Dillard and the emergence of a new threat, the Bushmaster.
Season two is about truth that lies in the past, dark things that can cause a lot of pain no matter how far back they have occurred. Characters are left with a choice: to find a way to push on or to get so caught up with past pain that they can barely breath. It is a battle for the soul of Harlem, for everyone one of their souls, and to not let all that potential be brought down by difficult foundations.
Luke has anger which originates from past pain, the strained relationship with his father that was teased in the first season. Their relationship is part of the hearts of this season and provides some of the most meaningful and moving scenes. Reg E. Cathey’s portrayal of James Lucas in one of the season’s best performances, as his acting executes the scripted parental guilt the character feels over his strained relationship with his son.
This season also deals with the role of the superhero vigilante in a far more believable way than other stories have in the past. Luke’s a public figure, a self-proclaimed hero of Harlem, and that comes with responsibilities. He also has to recognize that he is no an officer of the law, and that his role has its limitations. Cage spends the entirety of the season trying to figure out how best to protect Harlem, and the answers are not always clear. He wants to rise above his own demons and the one that still haunt the city, but it’s difficult to carve out a new path in a world controlled by established systems of power.
Luke Cage also becomes a more expansive show, as though the focus is still on the titular hero, this season places a heavy emphasis on the supporting cast. It is not just the tale of one lone hero, instead being about the story of a community, one that has a dark past but also a brighter future. This really expands the scope of the series as it tells a larger tale, a dark one deeply rooted in the worst parts of American history. It is this part of the season that makes it truly great, as Cage is not just confronting his own demons or present-day threats and is instead trying to conquer the overwhelming force that is history – one filled with bad blood.
Bushmaster is the new problem that has stepped into Harlem, and he makes for an effective antagonist against Luke Cage. John McIver is smart, calculating, highly skilled and has a few extra-human tricks of his own. Not only is he a worthy opponent for Cage, but the character also has a tragic element that makes him more interesting than your average gangster. He is vicious and no one should cross him, but the show also shows how human he is, and that is where this season finds its biggest success. None of the villains are cardboard cut outs or simplistic monsters (I stress simplistic as they commit some pretty horrific acts), they are people whose actions and views come from a very real place. McIver is consumed by his past, by his hate and it motivates him to become the most dangerous foe Harlem’s defender has ever faced.
The other antagonist force facing Cage this season is Mariah Stokes Dillard, and her role in this season is a testament to the shows’ writer’s abilities. Season two builds off of her prior appearances and slowly develops Mariah into something larger – more frightening, than a gangster or crooked politician. She is everything Luke is fighting to save Harlem from, and it leads to an epic battle of ideology instead of fists – though there is plenty of that as well.
Mariah’s daughter, Tilda, is introduced and similar to Shades the show quickly takes what seems like a stock character and breathes life into them. Her relationship with her mother is just as compelling as the Luke/James sub-plot, possibly even more so due to how in depth the season dives into their past.
An unexpected surprise was Shades, who in the series’ first season served largely as ‘head grunt’ for Cottonmouth. Choker in season two, takes this largely one-dimensional character and adds layers to him, leading to one of the most emotionally heavy character arcs in the season. With great writing and an outstanding performance by Theo Rossi, Shades is one of the many compelling characters that populate season two’s story.
Simone Missick’s portrayal of Misty Knight is just as good as it was in season one, except this time the series has given her a more developed storyline and an inner conflict that drives the character’s actions. In fact, Luke Cage uses the events of season one and The Defenders is the backstory for Misty, which works exceedingly well considering the trauma she endured. Misty and Luke go through a similar journey, as each must figure out how to best protect Harlem and move on from their deeply troubled past.
Once you open up your characters to a bigger world, it is hard to keep them isolated after that. The Defenders established a great dynamic between Danny Rand and Luke Cage, one that is key to Cage’s emotional journey in season two. Both actors have a great on-screen chemistry and their quite moments add a sense of levity to the dire events that transpire. The daughters of the dragon return as well, with Colleen help Misty Knight cope with the loss of her arm at the hands of… the Hand. These scenes develop these relationships further, but also develop the thematic elements of the second season without distracting from the over-arching storyline.
The season’s pacing was excellent, as there was this intensity in how fast things escalate that fits perfectly with how deadly and committed Bushmaster is in his goals. In general, this season follows a pace that feels very different from the other Netflix shows but one that allows Luke Cage to focus on developing its sprawling cast of characters. It also avoids one the pitfalls of the season one, where the first half of the series feels inconsistent with the remainder.
The music in this series is essential to the storytelling, with Paradise being at the center of that, as each song helps convey each character’s state of mind. Like season One, almost every – if not every episode – features a musical performance. It is these performances that take place in Harlem’s Paradise where you can get a real sense of what each character is experiences as well as the inner conflict waging wars inside them. This season, the series is greatly influenced by the music and culture of both Harlem and Jamaica and each episode embraces the vibrant and colorful aspects of both cultures, fusing them together for one, musical centered season.
One of my biggest criticisms about the first season was how uninteresting and visually unappealing some of the fights seemed. The choreography was weak and those scenes – which should have built excitement – felt dull as a result. This is an area where season two improves, as each fight is far more dynamic with different combat styles being employed by various characters.
The only criticism I have is how the series treats the character of Claire Temple. Rosario Dawson is an amazing actress and each time she reprises her role as the night nurse, she brings her A-game. That’s why it’s so disappointing that, in a season so focused on the show’s sprawling supporting cast, she really has no story of her own. The seeds of it are there but show never fully develops them and instead just treats her as ‘Luke Cage’s girlfriend’.
Easter eggs usually full these superhero shows, and Luke Cage’s second season is no exception. Multiple elements from the comics that do not quite fit with the gritty nature of the series are incorporated in intriguing ways that make them seem less cliché and hammy.
Luke Cage is not just a superhero show, it has gone beyond that and has become something else, something more. Season two was an epic crime drama where there is no evil, no objective good and this story has no winners. History is strong, its pull immense, and much like in life there is no clear-cut conclusion. There is no truly happy ending to this season, no sense of real conclusion and that is because the world is never simple.
Season 2 of Luke Cage starts streaming on Netflix on June 22, 2018.
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